Nate Gualtieri first found himself with his own kitchen in 2013. Suddenly free from an upbringing that devalued food, he started experimenting with the activity that would eventually embed him in a diverse community of food lovers: baking bread.

“This one particular [bread]… it was so ugly,” he said, laughing, during our Zoom interview. “It definitely was a failed starter, but I thought it was fine, so I used it in the bread anyway… and the bread came out flat as a pancake. It was yellow but also black on the tips… I ate it. It was weird.”

Far from perfect (or even presentable), those early attempts became Nate’s ritual for healing his broken relationship with food and his body.

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Photos by Nate Gualtieri and Ben Kadie; design by Dana Davenport.

Growing up in Frankin, Massachusetts, in a suburban sprawl surrounded by pastures and dairy farms, Nate didn’t have an exciting relationship with food.

By the time he was eight years old, his mom had taken him to Weight Watchers. The program, which focused on low fat products like diet puddings and sodas, was centered around a sense of deprivation.

“It was me and all these other middle-aged women in the basement of the Hampton Inn,” Nate recalled.

Around the same time, his mother made the decision to become Episcopalian. Nate found himself at an Episcopalian boarding school, where his identity became lost amid the religious and political values he adopted from his conservative community.

“I adopted these belief systems without question,” he said. “In the same way, I assumed I was a straight cis girl, despite internal feelings that told me otherwise. The word ‘transgender’ wasn’t in my vocabulary until later in my teens, almost my twenties. Accepting myself as trans led me to question my other beliefs and values.”

Even though Nate’s parents didn’t kick him out, it definitely was difficult for them to fully accept their child. “When I first came out, my father joked it was God’s way of punishing my mother,” Nate said.

After high school, Nate took a gap year to focus on his transition and seek therapy. Then, in 2013, he attended the University of Southern California to study screenwriting.

His first industry job was as a writers’ production assistant while he was still attending college full-time. As the lowest-ranking person in a writers’ room, Nate did the grunt work: getting lunches, sending emails, and scheduling. When he was promoted to showrunner’s assistant, his hours became longer: 15- to 20-hour days, 6 or sometimes 7 days a week.

“You’re essentially expected to give your life up for a job, which really takes a toll on your mental health,” he explained.

During this stressful time, Nate started baking more as a way to relax. And with many gaps between film gigs, he started to hone his skills.

As part of his new start in LA, Nate met new friends in a diverse community. These relationships helped him discover how to nurture his relationship with his body and food outside of weight loss. And they also made him realize how good it felt to make food for others.

“Baking for other people was different, I really cared about how it turned out,” he said. “And it was more satisfying to share with friends that sit alone in my apartment and eat an entire cake myself.”

The more he baked, the more comfortable and confident he became in the skill. It became a more focused hobby, and he took cooking more seriously too. One Valentine’s Day, he even whipped up a Beyoncé-themed dinner for his first girlfriend.

The afternoon Nate and I connected over Zoom, the streets outside my apartment in Queens were devoid of noise. The local brewery’s outdoor patio was collecting dust. The uncertainty of the pandemic came up in our conversation constantly.

Even before becoming acquainted with Nate, I, too, had been finding comfort in baking. As stress mounted, I relished the memories of warm bread my family and I would pick up every morning back in Russia.

And we’re not the only ones who feel this way. Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, there’s been a literal bread-baking renaissance. In fact, so many people want to bake that flour and yeast shortages have hit the United States.

Though notoriously hard to master, Nate advocates for bread baking because it relies on very little material — just basic ingredients like water and flour — and provides a meditative, soothing process of working with dough.

“It’s a very comforting thing to do, because you’re not processing any information [like the news] that’s inherently upsetting,” said Nate. “I think it’s also very nice to be able to work with your hands.”

Nate’s baking career became more serious after he did some pop-ups in the fall of 2019. FRUITCAKE, the first pop-up Nate sold his goods at, is a queer market in LA that uplifts LGBTQ+ artists and makers and brings the community together.

Meeting queer customers in real life and seeing them enjoy his baked goods gave Nate the confidence to continue his passion.

“It’s been very sweet to have clients that are queer,” he said, beaming. “And I love that I can bake for a specific community that really appreciates it. Really within the past year, it’s been cool to have other trans people feel like they can reach out to me, even though my page is about baking.”

Now, with COVID-19 canceling his future pop-ups, Nate has taken his work to the digital landscape, doing cooking classes on Cuties’ Instagram and taking private orders for baked goods on his own Instagram. (You can place an order by filling out this form with weekly specials, like challah and cookies.)

In the dire times of quarantine, a lot of small businesses and home bakers have begun mobilizing as a supportive community. The Toasted Loaf, another local baker, encouraged Nate to take more orders and has directed customers his way.

Cooking for other people has been transformative for Nate’s own relationship with food.

“If I was presenting [someone] with a gift, I didn’t want it to be barely edible or bland. But it took me a while to apply that logic to myself,” he said. “I kept choking down lightly seasoned chicken breasts until I decided I would just eat food that excited me. I really encourage people to put thought and care into their meals — whether you’re eating with someone else or not. It’s a way of showing care for others, and it’s a way of showing care for yourself.”

No-contact delivery has been a challenge. “It’s so hard because I have to leave [the order] outside their house and I can’t see [them],” he said, contrasting it to his pop-ups where he got to chat with his customers during deliveries.

But he’s still happy to drop off something people can enjoy in these trying times.

Irina Groushevaia is a non-binary writer and editor from Russia with a focus on food, wellness, and LGBTQ+. You can find them baking cookies on Instagram with their cat Beluga, making snarky comments on Twitter, and hanging out on their stoop in Queens, NY.